Politics & Government
12:37 pm
Tue August 20, 2013

What Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About Politics

Lake Effect's Dan Harmon interviews Joseph Foy and Dean Kowalski about the book, "Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory."

The idea that pop culture is filled with parables and stories beneath the surface is nothing new.

A new book looks at the intersection of pop culture and political theory.
Credit The University Press of Kentucky

Watch a Warner Brothers cartoon from the 1950s some time and you can quickly pick up that there’s often more than Bugs Bunny getting the best of Elmer Fudd.

But a couple of Wisconsin writers say political theory is also at the heart of much in pop culture. 

Joseph Foy uses the long-running cartoon “The Simpsons” as his jumping off point for the book he co-edited, Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory.

Foy says Homer is an icon of pop culture with whom many viewers identify. But he also provides a segue into Aristotle's political theory.

Aristotle valued virtue and order in the political system, and Foy says we can see both these aspects on display in the town of Springfield.

"There are moments where the writers and producers of the show give a nod to that idea," he says. For example, in the highly controversial  episode "The Principal and the Pauper," the Springfield community finds out that Principal Skinner is actually an imposter, who took over the identity after the real Sergeant Skinner disappeared in the Vietnam War.

Though the actual Skinner comes back, Foy says the episode ends with the community embracing order by rejecting the real Skinner and maintaining the principal they've known all this time in the role he has always held.

Moreover, Foy says virtue is a key aspect in the relationships between Bart and Lisa, as well as Homer and Marge. With Lisa as his moral compass, in each episode Bart becomes "habituated" toward aspects of virtue and becomes a more likeable character. The same is true, Foy says, of Homer in relation to Marge.

"Ultimately the only reason why we as an audience like Homer is because Marge loves Homer," he says. "That's really an important aspect of the show and the themes of the show itself.

Dean Kowalski authored a chapter on Star Wars and how it exemplifies Plato’s political philosophy.

"Plato was no fan of democracy - he wanted to argue for a meritocracy, where everyone in society has a distinct role to play given their natural aptitudes and abilities," Kowalski says.

But looking at the politics within the Star Wars universe, Kowalski says we can see that filmmaker George Lucas disagreed.

"What Lucas is trying to say is maybe Plato had overestimated any one individual's fortitude in terms of ruling the state, because if you're Plato, the philosopher king will always do the right thing, without fail," he says. "But Aristotle, for instance, thought Plato was just wrong about that. Nobody's that strong, and it seems that Lucas agrees with Aristotle on this."

Joseph Foy is an associate professor of political science and associate campus dean at UW-Waukesha. Dean Kowalski is author of a chapter on Star Wars and Plato, and associate professor of philosophy at UW-Waukesha.

You can hear more of their conversation below.

More from Dan Harmon's conversation with Joseph Foy and Dean Kowalski about "Homer Simpson Ponders Politics."